Aleshin makes impressive return to Verizon IndyCar Series

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – For someone who had pretty much been away from the Verizon IndyCar Series for a year and a half, Mikhail Aleshin didn’t show much rust.

Aleshin made the strongest charge through the field in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 13, moving from the 17th starting position to finish fifth – second best among the Honda contingent.

Following an impressive 2014 rookie season, the 28-year-old from Moscow missed all but the season finale last year. Aleshin sustained serious injuries in a crash during final practice in the ’14 season-ending race at Auto Club Speedway and used most of ’15 to fully recover while also driving in the European Le Mans Series. He did return to the Verizon IndyCar Series for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma last August, finishing 10th.

After securing a full-season return to drive the No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Honda over the winter, Aleshin missed most of the preseason testing due to visa issues in Russia. He wasn’t deterred.

Aleshin slowly climbed the leaderboard in the 110-lap race on the 1.8-mile temporary street course, moving into the top 10 by Lap 41. He avoided the multi-car pileup on Lap 57, climbed to as high as fourth place and steadily held onto fifth over the closing 25 laps.

"It was not very easy because of the lack of testing, but the SMP Racing car was very easy to drive,” Aleshin said. “I had so much fun, especially when I almost crashed into the group of guys. I don't know how I managed to find reverse, which is not easy, I'll tell you. A few seconds later and the engine would have overheated."

Despite missing nearly the entire 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Aleshin knew where his racing heart remained.

“I missed INDYCAR a lot,” he said, “and I missed the tough competition that you have here. I think it’s one of the best series.

“I’m really happy to be back on the team I started with. I think it's great people that are working there and, for sure, we're going to be even more successful this year.”

Not so happy birthday for Andretti

Marco Andretti had hoped to celebrate his 29th birthday by netting a strong finish in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and for a while it appeared the No. 27 Snapple Honda driver might get his wish.

Following a stellar race start where he gained six positions on the first lap to move into eighth, Andretti negotiated his way up to second place before his first pit stop. He was still running sixth when he made contact with Luca Filippi while trying to pass going into Turn 1.

"The Snapple Honda was strong and we were really making progress early on, but it was my mistake,” Andretti said. “I wanted the win too bad and was impatient. I hurt what was a good car.”

Andretti’s car later stalled on track with a mechanical issue and he wound up finishing 15th, a lap down to winner Juan Pablo Montoya.

“Disappointed, for sure,” Andretti said, “but we'll look ahead to Phoenix."

The next race on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule is the Phoenix Grand Prix, as Indy car racing returns April 1-2 to historic Phoenix International Raceway following an 11-year absence. NBCSN has thorough coverage of the weekend, including live telecasts of a practice session and Verizon P1 Award qualifying April 1 and the race under the lights on the 1.022-mile oval April 2 (8:30 p.m. ET).

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